Don’t Get Distracted by Side Quests

I was playing Defenders of the Realm at GenCon with a friend who’d never played it before. After we set up the pieces, each player got the card with their side quest. He got all excited at the prospect of getting this really cool weapon for his character. As we played, the board filled with evil minions. The rest of us ran around putting out fires (literally, the villain was setting things on fire) while he chased his side quest. About halfway through, he looked down at the board and said, “Wow. I really don’t have time to do this, do I?” His dithering around on that side quest, instead of helping us defeat the dragon generals, ultimately cost us the game.

I’ve given up a side quest. Which was hard, because I really, really like it. I’ve been writing and editing a newsletter at work, and I’m not ashamed to admit I did it well. In fact, that was becoming the problem. You see, I’ve been trying to finish a full length novel. But as much as I love the newsletter, it’s a lot of creative writing work, and I started wondering if I was using my writing energies on that rather than devoting them to my true goal.

Life is more like board games than i’d like to admit. The key to winning is to remember what, exactly, constitutes winning. But just like that game of Defenders of the Realm, chasing a side quest could take so much time away from my true goal, I jeopardize achieving life’s victory conditions. But unlike a game, life doesn’t come with a rule book defining the victory conditions. So I have to ask myself what my true goals are. The great part is I get to pick! Also, the terrible part is I have to pick. I know there have been times where I wished life came with a handy rule book that spelled them out for me.

Not that other people haven’t tried to tell me what the victory conditions for life are. It sometimes seems everyone is out to tell you what it means to succeed in life, or to fail at it. Advertisements. Pop culture. corporate culture. Heck, some of the worst messages came from my own family. My brother once called the community college I attended “Harvard by the highway”, not-at-all-subtly implying I’d failed at life because I wasn’t at a four year university.

Thus, the side quest. It’s easy for me to go haring off after some shiny objective because someone else said I should. It’s simpler to plot the career path others say is the best one for me. And it’s really FUN to track down trivia for newsletter articles in my increasingly limited free time.

I need to say goodbye to the side quest. Workplace newsletters don’t get a book published, and I’m increasingly convinced that my real contribution to my job is the projects I have yet to start. I have the capacity to accomplish amazing things; ironically, the newsletter proved that. Now it’s time to abandon the side quest and devote my time to achieving those amazing things.

I’ll miss the trivia, though.

A Noveling I Go…

Agile seems to be working so far, even though the new process occasionally melts my brain. Specifically, User Stories.

A user story is Agile’s way of breaking down your work into easy-to-handle bits. There’s a couple of different conventions for how a user story is structured, but they all essentially include a name, a description, and some criteria for when it’s complete. However, with a creative endeavor like a novel, it’s not as easy to quantify these things as it seems at first.

I kind of cheated, since I already use short names to label my scenes/chapters – a word or phrase that feels evocative of the scene. Once I realized that was enough for a user story name, I was good. But the description became a bit more complex. It I felt I’d sucked all the fun out of the writing process as I detailed what plot point I had to hit, which character points should be highlighted. So mechanical.

At first. But here was where I had to hit myself over the head with a clue-by-four. Duh. This is Agile. I don’t have to stick precisely to the listed points, and the format of Agile allows me to change upcoming scenes to adapt to any changes I make along the way. A blend of plotting and pantsing.

OK, I know I wasn’t married to the outline before this, but I got stuck, you know? I’d stop because I was unhappy with the outline, but didn’t really know what I should put in its place. Or I’d obsessively changing the outline to explore a new concept, stopping the writing dead in its tracks. Or any other number of distractions I’d engineer to keep me from moving along. The Agile structure seems to be keeping me writing, while freeing me from the plodding feeling that always plagued me before. No, Ericka, leave Facebook alone and just finish this one thing…

I finished my Act One. All the chapters written, though still in a bit of a rough form, they are at least presentable. I developed the user stories for Act Two and plan on starting those tonight. I’m still struggling with how to properly format my completion criteria. Scenes are as long as they are, after all. But I’ve been assured that it’s all right for me to simply loosely hit my listed points and call that “done” as long as I go and clean up the grammar, spelling and minor continuity issues before putting the draft to bed. That way I’ve created my “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP), a sacred Agile concept that you have something complete to show for your efforts.

I’ve been told MVP is the secret genius of Agile. A series of small accomplishments to motivate you to finish the next user story, and the next, instead of having to wait until the end to get the golden feel-good glow of a job well done. I’ll admit I like the discrete stages I’m working through: a bit of worldbuilding, some character work, story-mapping into scenes until I have a list of scenes to write for the next act. Rinse and repeat for the next iteration. How many acts will it be? I don’t know, and that’s OK.

I’ve had a few people suggest that this isn’t any different than “normal” writing methods and I could do it without all the Agile rigmarole. But I LIKE the Agile rigmarole. It’s organization without the rigidity. Enough stops to reassess my work without drawing me completely out of the flow. Enough accomplishments to make me feel there’s progress, not just more of the same. Enough flexibility that I know what I can decide later, instead of trying to lay it all out before I even know what I’m doing.

In short, it’s a system. I suppose to truly be Agile I’d have to publish Act One soon and get all the lovely joys of “Oh, my God it’s OUT THERE for people to read.” but as my SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) have pointed out, serialization requires a backlog so your readers don’t forget you waiting for the next installment. I’m not George R.R. Martin; I can’t get away with making people wait. So I move on.

It feels good to have something done.

A Crisis of Management

Agile Novel Management has revealed some…unexpected things.

First, I’m not going this alone. I’d thought I would be and help stepped in from unexpected directions. I have professional help. No, not a therapist – though that may become a writing expense before this is all over. I’ll tell you that part in a minute. No, a friend who is a professional Scrum Master offered to pilot this project with me. He’d been wondering for a while how to apply Agile to normal life and figured my novel would make a fertile test ground. I also found another writer interested in trying out the Agile Way. He’s looking for a way to get his finished as well, and thought this sounded like an interesting method.

SOOOOOOO…the first thing I learned is how little I actually know about Agile. I jumped into this with the cozy cushion of Dunning-Kruger below me, only to notice after I leaped I had NO IDEA what waited for me on the way down. I haven’t even gotten to actual writing work yet. The first steps for Agile involve establishing the parameters for your project. And – I made stunning realization number one.

I never would have thought of myself as indecisive. Yet here I am, wavering on literally every decision that needs to be made. Do I self-publish as a serial? I was set on that, until I talked with some friends who thought I was short-changing myself if I didn’t give traditional publishing a try. Picked the book, until another friend told me she liked one of my other ideas better, and I thought of a couple of more and ….well, you get the picture.

I keep trying to leave my options open. But while Agile is about flexibility, even Agile can’t magically allow me to have it both ways. Perhaps I’ve discovered why I couldn’t get a novel written earlier. I’ve been shying away from commitment. All those of you who know me may gasp appropriately. I know. I couldn’t believe it, either. If there’s one thing I can so, it’s make a decision. Yet here I am, waffling. Why?

Queue stunning realization number two. I’m afraid. Insert another shocked gasp here. Me? I blaze trails for everyone else to follow. And that, I think, is part of my problem. A friend recently reminded me that most people don’t have a passion in life, and don’t know how to relate to someone who does. I write to give expression to my emotions, to share them with other people. I’m afraid that I will pour all my passion into this project and no one will read it.

It’s not an unrealistic fear. Any author will tell you marketing a novel is harder than writing one. I am a published author, and yet very few people I know have ever actually read any of the stories I got published. I find it hard to have conversations with people, because it feels like people avoid talking to me. How am I supposed to succeed marketing my novel when I can barely get people to say good morning after I’ve said it first? I know no one notices me unless I’m standing right in front of them. They look away and poof! forget I exist. I don’t even have family members I can guilt into buying my book. No, really. Don’t tell my relatives I’m writing a book. They might find me, then I’d have to get a restraining order….

Stunning realizations one and two stem from the same deep-seated issue. I’m avoiding committing because I don’t know what will make people like my book. I know, I know, I should write what I want and not care what other people want. But I already know that if I write it, they WON’T come. And what’s the point of writing a novel if no one reads it?

Agile’s forcing me to face my emotions head-on. I must admit, that wasn’t what I was expecting when I started. Most writers would tell you they need therapy, and that’s why they write. Apparently I need therapy to write a business plan.

Novel Development the Agile Way

As most of my writer friends know, I’ve been struggling with writing a novel. Not writing in general. Goodness knows I write short stories by the dozens. It’s not a lack of talent. I’m an excellent writer who can actually sell short stories. Nor is the problem ideas. I have plenty of ideas for novels. But I start a novel, get 15-20 thousand words in, then stop. And for a long time I’ve been asking myself why. I go to workshop after workshop looking for the thing that will break the logjam and let the novels flow. Today, while I was doing some research at work, I think I found the reason why.

I’ve been trying to develop a novel using Waterfall when I really needed to use Agile.

Half of you are laughing at me right now. The other half are thinking you understood all the individual words in that sentence but have no idea what it means. To sum up while my software developer friends laugh, Waterfall is the nickname for the Systems Development Life Cycle, the traditional approach to creating new software. It has five phases: Analysis, Design, Implementation, Testing  and Deployment. We computer types call it Waterfall because you complete each phase then ‘flow down’ to the next. When you diagram the process, it looks like a waterfall.

And that, now that the rest of you are done laughing, is how I’ve been approaching novels. Start with the idea, create the characters and plot, write the first draft, edit, then send it out to editors and publishers. In other words, Analysis, Design, Implementation, Testing and Deployment. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to write a novel. Lots of people do it that way. Yet, somehow, I get stuck in the implementation phase and never make it to testing or deployment. Since I’ve been writing for over a decade and still haven’t finished a novel, perhaps it’s time to face the fact that Waterfall ain’t workin’ for me.

The epiphany came this afternoon as I was plowing through videos on Agile software development. In a nutshell, Agile focuses on short iterations rather than working the project as a whole. Instead of completing each phase before flowing down to the next, Agile does a quick tour of all five on one small chunk of the project to get you as close to  a working product as you can get. Perhaps not a good product. Definitely not a full-featured product. But something. Then you review the project, pick another chunk, and incorporate that into your product. After several iterations, you’ll get a product that has all the features you need – many of which you hadn’t realized you needed at the beginning.

Agile is all about flexibility. By delivering in small, constant segments you make the whole process easier to complete. In a way, it’s the anti-big picture. Done right, it helps keep you from getting lost in the very big-ness of what you’re creating. It lets you adapt to new conditions and revise your requirements as you go. And I think THAT’S what I needed all along. I need a way to concentrate on the little pieces and keep my engagement in the story through the long haul of writing chapter after chapter. Maybe instead of writing the whole story at once, I should break it down. Incorporate this cool thing first. Then add another cool thing. So on and so forth.

SOOOOO….thus begins my experiment. I’m going to work my novel as if it were an Agile project. YouTube assures me Agile works even with legacy systems, so I don’t have to ditch everything I’ve already written and start over. I just have to do my initial analysis, come up with a Product Backlog wish list, and pick the bits to work on for my first sprint. Then do it again. And again. Until, finally, I have a salable product.

I’ll keep you posted on how this works out. #AgileNovelProject